Douglas Kennedy: Escape from LA

Douglas Kennedy knew that he was going to get fired from Hollywood when the coffee boy started telling him how to write. He may have received million-dollar advances for his novels, but he knows what it's like to fall from grace - and, he tells Danuta Kean, it's not that bad
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

Douglas Kennedy is the kind of author you want to bump into at book parties. Deliciously gossipy, his sharp observations are telling little narratives about overheard pretentiousness and Hollywood fakery that reveal a deep cynicism about celebrity hype and a clear perspective about what really matters in an artist's life: work.

"I know that the trappings of success essentially last for as long as the latest book is successful," he says as we sip espresso in the sitting room of his £1m south London home. "Frankly, I don't buy into what someone once said was 'the importance of being fabulous'. I'm not interested in that."

He is interested in the telling details that reveal human duplicity, and the neurosis that underpins success. "Success is a very fragile veneer," he observes. It is a theme in his latest novel, Temptation, a Hollywood morality tale. The book features some of his anecdotes, real-life snippets overheard in LA bars. A favourite appears early on, as ambitious, beautiful fictional Fox exec Sally Birmingham seduces the novel's protagonist David Armitage, a 41-year-old television screenwriter who has finally broken through to the big time. Birmingham recounts a lunch with Hollywood hot-shot Mia Morrison, when she called over a waiter. "So tell me your waters," Morrison asks. The waiter lists: "Perrier from France, and Ballygowan from Ireland, and San Pellegrino from Italy..." Suddenly Morrison interrupts: "Oh, no, not San Pellegrino. It's too rich."

However, Kennedy's best stories concern his own misadventures in La-La Land, and provide a bitter undercurrent for Temptation's take on writing for the movies. Back in the early 1990s, film rights to his first novel The Dead Heart, a darkly comic tale of an American journalist adrift in Australia's outback, were snapped up by Goldwin, and Kennedy was hired as screenwriter.

"In Hollywood, everyone has a say about your screenplay, someone who makes the coffee will say, 'The narrative arc here doesn't work,'" he explains, only half joking. "When I wrote the second draft, the producers sent 15 pages of notes about my 110-page screenplay. There was a line in it that summed up a certain kind of Hollywoodism: 'Doug, please remember, in this movie the plot is the popcorn that carries the butter.' I've still not worked out what the hell he meant. When I was fired three weeks later it came as a relief." He adds dryly: "I was obviously not carrying the butter."

Stephan Elliott, fresh from his success directing The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, was drafted into the project. Kennedy was soon disabused of any hope that his novel would survive intact. "I got a call from the producer saying, 'We're going into production in a week and I'm going to send you the screenplay and you're gonna love it, absolutely love it.'" He observes archly: "You know, that is up there with, 'I'll respect you in the morning.'"

He was right to feel worried: not only had the tale set in the Oz outback been transported to New York, but the journalist lead had been transformed into an exotic bird salesman. "Oh, and 22 Rogers and Hammerstein songs had been added." Kennedy looks incredulous. "I managed to go to the screening at Cannes, and I was introduced to Stephan Elliott for the first time. He said: 'Douglas Kennedy! Nice to meet you. You know, I've got to read the novel sometime.'"

Hollywood is not Kennedy's only target in Temptation: New York publishing is firmly in his sights too. In Temptation, David Armitage fails big time when, overnight, his success as creator of Selling You, a sharp, postmodern comedy that takes America by storm, is followed by a crash to earth, when he is revealed as a plagiarist. It is a position Kennedy understands. His own fall from grace, which happened in America when he too was 41, inspired the book. "I got this telephone number of an advance for The Big Picture, $1.1m," he explains. The novel, published in 1997, was a thriller that drew comparisons with Grisham - but it did not sell like Grisham. When his next book, The Job, failed to live up to its $1m advance, Kennedy was cast out and no New York publisher would touch his next book.

He is now in a peculiar situation. Lauded worldwide, his past three books, The Pursuit of Happiness, Special Relationship and State of the Union, have each sold a million worldwide. In France, where Temptation was first published and sold 200,000 in hardback, he was made a Chevalier du Lettres. But he is not published in his homeland.

"My books are published in 17 languages, but the one country I am shut out from is my own," he complains.He admits to an ambivalent relationship with his native country. Having run away from home at 21, he has spent the past 29 years in Dublin and England - 18 in London. "I go back to the States and there is a part of me that feels it is my country, and there is another part of me that feels four steps removed from it," he says.

Though he has houses in Paris and Berlin, London is home for his wife of 23 years, Grace, and their two children. He loves unequivocally London's cultural life. A self-confessed culture vulture, he estimates he sees, on average, four plays a month, an equal number of concerts every week, and about 250 movies a year. He looks the part. Dressed in black shirt and designer jeans, he looks like the kind of men found scrutinising the latest Anish Kapoor in the Serpentine Gallery.

In his books, that unflinching eye is turned on human foibles. His characters are complex human beings. "I've always said that behind most human actions are five different things at once, three of which the person themselves doesn't realise," he observes.

His own motivation lies in a troubled New York childhood. Outwardly prosperous, his father was a commodities broker, his mother worked at NBC. It was an unhappy home. Her Judaism combined with his father's Catholicism left him with "guilt in stereo".

Paternal disapproval seems to have left Kennedy with an almost neurotic fear of failure, which motivates a disciplined work regime: he insists he writes at least 1,000 words a day. "I've always been neurotically worried that tomorrow is going to go wrong" he explains. "Anyone who says that they don't doubt themselves, especially novelists, is the biggest liar on the planet. I doubt all the time. That is a very big motivation for me."

He has already completed his next novel, The Woman in the Fifth (out next year), and is preparing to start his next. It is hard to reconcile this drive to please with a self-sabotaging tendency bordering on commercial contrariness, as his long-time UK agent Antony Harwood admits. "It has been remarked that he is both a literary and massmarket writer, so doesn't fit into an obvious niche," he explains, though he is confident his client will be published again in the US soon.

Kennedy clearly likes being hard to pin down. "I've not tried to fit into any niche, anymore than I have tried to fit into any country," the ex-pat admits. "I refuse to do the same thing again and again."

Following his muse is praiseworthy, but it has not helped in the homeland. After he was labelled a Grisham-style thriller writer, he wrote The Pursuit of Happiness, a love story set in post-war New York. He looks sheepish when I ask about the sudden change of direction. He sniggers like a schoolboy caught in the act. "A friend in New York said after he had read Pursuit, 'What have you done? You've fucked your niche.' I just thought, that should go on my tombstone." It is the kind of story that should appear in one of his books. Knowing Douglas Kennedy, it probably will.

To order a copy of 'Temptation' (Hutchinson £14.99) for £13.50 (free p&p), call Independent Books Direct on 08700 798 897